I just read Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt. It’s wonderful; will make you think, and enjoy your thinking. Almost anyone who’s bothered to visit this humble blog more than a couple of times would enjoy it, I think.

I’ll provide a few words of review (just cheerleading, basically) and then dip into a little metaphysics myself; but I’ll warn you so you can stop reading before I go there.

The Question and the Method · The Question is “Why is there anything?” — obviously the center of metaphysics. Because, well, maybe there needn’t have been. Scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers prefer simpler explanations and shorter stories; and what could be simpler than the null universe? No dimensions of space nor time, no quantum vacuum, no planets, no J.S. Bach, no reality TV.

Many have wrestled with this problem, and many, over the centuries, have joined it to another: the existence (or not) of God. However, nobody I’ve read (and I actually like metaphysics) has addressed it with Holt’s clarity, good humor, and open mind.

The method is, Holt lays out background and introduces the leading schools of thought, then travels around to visit and converse with their leading living exponents. They’re all interesting people, it seems; you’ll be glad to have met them even indirectly.

The nooks and crannies between voyages, and between theories, are filled with personal anecdote, sometimes helpful in casting light the existential shooting gallery, almost always featuring good wine in interesting places. We also visit a canine medical crisis and his mother’s deathbed.

What He Thinks · He likes Leibniz and Spinoza and Derek Parfit, of whom I hadn’t previously heard, but now I want to read. He loathes Hegel and Sartre, as any reasonable person must.

He’s actually pretty convinced that his own elaboration on Parfit’s notion of Selectors is sound, and might even amount to a proof of why something-rather-than-nothing is necessary.

It’s a good book! Read it!

Me on Miracles · I threatened you with metaphysics, and here’s where they start. But this is the Philosophy-Lite section, so bear with me for two paragraphs.

What’s a “miracle”? Simple: It’s something we observe which neither science or logical deduction can explain.

Unless you believe that one of the theories Holt describes really proves nullity is impossible, well then, the Universe itself, and all the things in it, are a great big miracle. Because science may explain how it all works, but has no consensus about why it’s all here; as opposed to not. Hey, a miracle that an atheist has to acknowledge is A Good Thing, I think we can all agree.

Metaphysical Bullets · Warning: This section mentions Kant and Tantra and multiverses. But since we’re private-sector geeks, I bullet-list the philosophy for you.

  • Liebniz’s argument for the Uncaused Cause has always resonated with me. We observe that everything we observe has a cause and an explanation. Why should the universe as a whole be any difference? So what’s its cause? Back when we believed in an infinite past, this was less worrying; but we don’t any more.

    Doesn’t make me feel Theist in the slightest, but it’s still attractive.

  • Robert Nozick’s “principle of fecundity” is also remarkably appealing. It fits in a phrase, aligns neatly with the Multiverse notion, and sweeps away the worry around the Anthropic principle.

  • I have a Math degree; I’m pretty sure that the (large proportion of) mathematicians who, like me, believe math is discovered not invented, also believe that even if the Universe were null, Modus ponens would be a reality, and that numbers would still exist even if no mind existed to consider or inscribe them.

    (Geek sidebar: When I was a programmer working on the Maple algebra system, I was astounded to discover that when comparing any two things whatsoever for equality, the program would evaluate-and-simplify both sides as much as possible, and then simply see if the same object came out of the process. Because, you see, there’s really only one number 2 in a computer-algebra system; or in the Universe. But there for damn sure is that one.)

  • Someone like me who’s pretty sure that math exists independent of the universe gets interested in problems like Kant’s notion of the “synthetic a priori”, something that is true, but not mechanically derivable using processes of pure logic. He claimed that 7 + 5 = 12 was an example, but that’s because he didn’t understand formal mathematics.

    I’ve always thought that Induction was the synthetic a priori: the (admittedly circular) notion that since the behavior of the Universe as we observe it is consistent, we should feel safe in assuming that it will continue to be. All of Science and Engineering is based on this premise, but there’s nothing in the math that suggests it should be so.

    Maybe I should write a book about this, but it probably wouldn’t be as much fun as Holt’s.

  • Of course, a synthetic a priori is much more satisfying than mechanical formal logical deduction, but it still doesn’t get you length or duration or mass or charge or any of the other things of which we’re built.

  • If, like me, you’re inclined to see the Universe as a miracle, but find the notion of a personalized deity ridiculous, you might want to investigate Tantric spirituality. It’s sort of messy and all over the place, but is inclined to embrace the world, perhaps even worship it. Worship, thanksgiving, and humility seem obviously good things.

    You can ignore all the stuff about how the miraculous nature of reality is necessarily of Divine origin. Because one miracle is all you need, if it’s big enough.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Osvaldo (Aug 16 2012, at 20:51)

I don't agree with your definition of "miracle". The traditional meaning is that the most fundamental property of a miracle is being supernatural: miracles are not just unexplained (or even unexplainable), they are impossible as natural phenomena. It's not the unknown: it's a violation to something that is known.

(Alternatively, we may propose that a miracle is possible when some deity temporarily changes or suspends the laws of nature that would make it impossible; but that boils down to the same effect.)


From: JulesLt (Aug 17 2012, at 01:42)

Theism always strikes me as simply moving the 'something from nothing' problem to be 'where did God come from'.


From: Jacek Kopecky (Aug 17 2012, at 02:06)

Given that a miracle is only a miracle when it happens, defining it as impossible stretches the meaning of the word "impossible" into the possible. I don't see that as a useful stretch.

It's not impossible if it happened. (Plenty of space for doubting it happened, though...)

Some miracles need to be unexplainable by our current understanding of nature, and unexpected. Example: lightning was unexplainable for a long time, but expected, that's probably why it wouldn't be called a miracle.

Or you could call something a miracle that is perfectly explainable by our current understanding of nature, just that the odds are against it happening so you imagine there must be a supernatural will that made it happen (e.g. surviving a horrible accident).

Love these topics.


From: Jess (Aug 17 2012, at 08:59)

I don't mean to start a "religious" argument, but if mathematics is a process of discovery rather than invention, then its object is the human mind rather than the universe. Our habit of distinguishing "one" from "two" is every bit as arbitrary as assigning electrons the negative charge. Other minds could exist that wouldn't find these choices natural or rewarding. They perhaps wouldn't be able to build the things that we have with our various techniques, but they'd probably build other things that would only be possible for us with a complete reconceptualization of mathematics.

I'm not making the error of relativism, because I'm not suggesting there is anything unsupportable or even culturally contingent about how we do math (one could reasonably say those things, but I'm not saying them). Rather, how we do math, much like how we do metaphysics, says more about humans than it does about the universe.


From: Al (Aug 17 2012, at 14:54)

"Kant ... didn’t understand formal mathematics"

Uh. The "formal mathematics" you're thinking of (anything we'd recognize as "formal mathematics") didn't even *begin* to exist until something like a hundred years after Kant was working. So it isn't going to tell you anything interesting about what he was talking about.


From: David Magda (Aug 17 2012, at 15:39)

I'm trying to get through "Aquinas" by Edward Feser:



It's only two hundred pages, but ridiculously dense—though probably much less so then most of Thomas Aquinas works themselves. :)

Feser was an atheist and taught/teaches philosophy, and he volunteered to do a course on Aquinas at one point: while originally a skeptical ("who cares about the dated arguments from the 1200s?"), they actually ended up convincing him as he examined them.

He wrote the book because he found that most folks have a sloppy understanding of Aquinas' 'proofs', and so the arguments "against" them are actually arguments against straw men. Anyway: good for a long flight, but be warned: dense.

As for miracles, I always thought that this event was quite extraordinary:



From: Osvaldo (Aug 18 2012, at 06:27)

@Jacek: These things are always hard to explain :) by "impossible", I mean that something won't happen in the Universe left to the regular and boring limits of its natural laws. Put another way, the miracle is by definition something that needs the intervention of a supernatural agent (a God).

Now maybe we should just expand our definition of nature to include God, so there's nothing exceptional about miracles? No, because (IMO) the essential property of nature is that it's perfectly regular and coherent. See how theoretical physicists often make precise predictions, based exclusively on math and logic, that are confirmed fifty years later by experiments or observation. Natural laws are stable also; they never change (things like the fine-structure constant, which may have changed through the Universe's history, are not natural laws).

Finally, (and maybe the most important thing) natural laws impose all sorts of limits to which events are possible. Put simply, the natural world is a place where some things are possible, and others are not; some things cannot be achieved with any amount of knowledge, technology, or effort. (Thermodynamics alone is a bitch, making tons of cool things--such as resurrection--impossible.) But a universe that allows "miracles" is the opposite, it's a place where absolutely anything is possible, and we just label as miracle the events that don't fit in the regular laws of nature but can still happen by divine intervention.


From: Daniel Lemire (Aug 18 2012, at 13:54)

"Back when we believed in an infinite past, this was less worrying; but we don’t any more."

I submit to you this passage from Wikipedia:

"(...) This led the majority of cosmologists to accept the notion that the universe as currently described by the physics of general relativity has a finite age. However, due to a lack of a theory of quantum gravity, there is no way to say whether the singularity is an actual origin point for the universe, or whether the physical processes that govern the regime cause the universe to be effectively eternal in character."



From: Ian (Aug 21 2012, at 13:44)

Religion is about what's outside the universe. Science is about what's inside. The two can co-exist quite nicely.


From: Ted (Aug 26 2012, at 05:20)

"[Philosophy is] a subject where there is no discernible progress where there is no general agreement on the premises from which an argument could be launched, where every conceivable position has been argued for by some group of philosophers and equally refuted by another group. In short, philosophy, like religion, abounds in isms and schisms, which it is a waste of time to try and sort out."

From Michael Redhead's Tamer Lectures


From: Ted (Aug 26 2012, at 05:40)

re: "math exists independent of the universe":

For an alternative view, see the concluding chapter of Davis & Hersh's The Mathematical Experience:

"Mathematics is not the study of an ideal, preexisting reality. Neither is it a chess-like game with made-up symbols and formulas. Rather, it is the part of human studies which is capable of achieving a science-like consensus, capable of establishing <i>reproducible</i> results."


From: Tim Converse (Aug 27 2012, at 16:40)

For a fictional spin through some related topics, I highly recommend Neal Stephenson's _Anathem_


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